Author Archive

Old Fashioned SABR Metrics

Facebook blankYou all know about sabermetrics, Bill James’s neologism for an analytical approach to baseball. Bill honored SABR with this coinage because SABR represented intellectual traits he admired: a dedication to research (it is, after all the Society for American Baseball Research), a conviction that significant aspects of the game are invisible to the naked eye, and a skepticism about received wisdom. In the early days of SABR many of its most skilled researchers concerned themselves not only with the relative merits of men who played in different eras but with determining who the players WERE. Hundreds of players were absolute ciphers, about whom nothing but a last name was known–a box score entry, that was all. Lee Allen and Bill Haber hunted for headstones; Vern Luse and Bill Carle scoured the squibs in Sporting Life. Today the number of major leaguers about whom absolutely nothing is known has been reduced to a relative handful, and for most men we even have a photographic or woodcut portrait. One player who resisted all efforts to go beyond a last name has been “Stine” or “Stein,” a one-gamer with the Philadelphia Athletics of 1890. 

Sabermetrics is great, but this is old-fashioned SABR metrics, hard work and enormously gratifying. Richard Malatzky, a brilliant researcher, posted this to the Nineteenth Century Base Ball Research listserv on January 6. 

It seems that half of the missing players found by the Biographical Research Committee in the last ten to fifteen years are corrections to misidentified players in the original Turkin and Thompson from 1951.

As is my habit, I was checking another 19th century one-gamer, this time Harry C. Stine, listed for July 22, 1890 with the Philadelphia Athletics. I was surprised that the box score had the spelling as Stein. A search of Sporting Life said that Stein was a left handed pitcher from the Interstate League.

It turned out that Baseball Reference had a Stein, no first name, who pitched for Dover, Delaware and Wilmington, Delaware. This turned out to be our man. He appeared in box scores in 1889 and 1890 and when he was signed by Dover it was said that he played near Trenton in 1888.

So that was 2010 and the listing eliminated Harry C. Stine and replace him with Stein, no first name. I recently subscribed to and checked the Philadelphia Times for the game story. It said he came from the Lebanon, PA team. A search came up with his signing with Lebanon and it said he had been with Wilmington. His name is William Stein. So we finally had his first name.

Yesterday I was searching for an amateur in Philadelphia from the 1892 one-gamers and turned up an article about John Deasley. the manager of the Defiance baseball club, which mentioned that he signed pitcher Stein of the Hartfords. Baseball Reference had a Stein with Hartford of the Connecticut State League.

I thought that an amateur club would most likely have local players. So I checked the Philadelphia City Directory for William Stein and found five of them, including a William H., William J., and William W. A search of the 1900 census showed William H. who was born in Pennsylvania in April 1868 and two other Williams born in 1870 and 1872.

William H. was a bartender so that was the most likely one being 20 in his first year and a very common profession for a ball player.

I searched the Philadelphia Times for William H. Stein and found a 1903 article that said that the William H. Stein Base ball team of Nicetown can be reached at William H Stein, Bristol Street, Nicetown . This was a great clue.

I searched the census for our man born 1867 to 1869. He turns up in Plattsburgh, NY in the 1940 census with his daughter Isabelle Fisk and son in law Morgan Burleigh Fisk. They are in the local city directory up to 1941 and then are in Philadelphia in Fisk’s World War II draft registration.

Our man’s wife Anna died in 1933, with her husband listed as William H. Stein, and was buried in Philadelphia’s Holy Redeemer Cemetery. William Henry Stein, it turns out, was born on April 9, 1868 in Telford, PA and died November 11, 1945 in Philadelphia. He is buried with his wife.

Many missing players have been found but have taken 10 to 20 years to be verified, as their obituaries don’t mention baseball. I hope that the baseball connection here is enough.


A Tip to Teddy

May 1908

This epistle to President Theodore Roosevelt appeared in the very first issue of the great Baseball Magazine, in May of 1908. Teddy had just entered upon his final year in the White House, having forsworn another term despite his entitlement to take another run at the Presidency: he had served only one full term and part of another, taking the nation’s helm after the death of President McKinley in 1901. What was our leader, the hero of San Juan Hill, the trust buster and safari hunter, to do next? Grantland Rice had an idea. If President Obama is uncertain about his next steps, this might pique his interest.

Teddy, when your work is through in the presidential chair,

When another takes the shift where you’ve learned to do and dare,

You will need another job—one that’s a monstrosity,

That will soak up, day by day, all your strenuosity.

It must be a husky job—full of smoke and fire to boot,

And in looking ’round I’ve found only one I know will suit.

Only one where your Big Stick will be needed day by day;

Only one to fit in, Ted, with your rough-and-tumble way;

Only one where in the end you will someday long for rest,

Where your energy will wane and your spirit be depressed.


You will find it diff’rent from any nature-faking fuss;

You will find it harder than mauling up the octopus;

It will a rougher job than a charge up San Juan Hill,

Or a battle with the trusts—it will take a stronger will.

Fighting predatory wealth or the kings of high finance,

Culling railroad moguls down will not be a circumstance.

All in all ’twill suit you fine, never having been afraid

Of aught else upon this earth—you should be an umpire, Ted!


That’s the only job for you—take your tip now, Theodore;

Think of how your pulse will leap when you hear the angry roar

Of the bleacher gods enraged; you will find the action there

Which you’ve hunted for in vain in the presidential chair.

Chasing mountain lions and such, catching grizzlies will seem tame

Lined up with the jolt you’ll get in the thick of some close game.

Choking angry wolves to death as a sport will stack up raw

When you see Kid Elberfeld[1] swinging for your jaw.


When you hear Hugh Jennings[2] roar, “Call them strikes—you lump of cheese!”

Or McGraw[3] comes rushing in, kicking at your shins and knees;

When the bleachers rise and shout, “Robber—Liar—Thief and Dub!”

You’ll be sorry for the gents in your Ananias Club.

You’ll find it’s a diff’rent thing making peace with old Japan

Than when you have called a strike on O’Connor[4] or McGann[5].

Holding California down isn’t quite the same, I’ll state,

As is calling Devlin[6] out on a close-out at the plate.


Teddy Roosevelt, 'What's the score' 1907

“What’s the score?” October 5, 1907

Though I’ve hunted far and near, there is nothing else to do

Where you’ll get what’s coming, Ted—all that’s coming unto you—

You should be an umpire, Ted, and I’ll bet two weeks would be

Quite enough to curb your rash, headlong stren-u-os-i-tee.[7]



  1. Norman Arthur Elberfeld, Yankees player-manager.
  2. Hugh Ambrose Jennings, Tigers player-manager.
  3. John McGraw, Giants manager
  4. John Joseph O’Connor, Browns’ player-manager, known as “Rowdy Jack.”
  5. Dennis L. “Dan” McGann, Boston Nationals player.
  6. Arthur McArthur Devlin, New York Giants player.
  7. “The Strenuous Life,” speech before the Hamilton Club, Chicago, April 10, 1899; full text at


The Magic Glute

Homo erectus

Homo erectus

With apologies to Mozart, I don’t know why I didn’t share this good if elderly column earlier. It’s not about baseball as such, but it is about sport, and language, and things that matter. As we stand ready to form New Year’s resolutions for self-improvement, I suggest: don’t do a thing; you are fine just as you are.

In the November 18, 2004 issue of Nature, Dennis M. Bramble and Daniel E. Lieberman wrote that distance running, not bipedal walking, was what made Homo erectus look like you and me … well, like you, anyway. I recognize myself more clearly in the authors’ description of the diffident Australopithecus: short legs, long forearms, and high, bookwormishly shrugged shoulders. Our nearer ancestor, Homo erectus, had shorter arms, longer legs, a skinnier ribcage and pelvis and–key to the further evolution of the species–buns.

Like chimpanzees today, proto-humans had narrow pelvises that could not support the robust gluteus maximus for which Homo sapiens is known (and you thought he was differentiated by his brain!). Identifying 25 other traits besides strong buttocks that made Homo sapiens born to run, the authors also noted the development of a nuchal ligament at the back of the neck. As with other mammals capable of high-speed or long-distance running, this connective tissue permits a runner to keep his noggin still, unlike the pigs that Bramble and Lieberman set to racing on treadmills as bobble-head surrogates for Olivia Newton-John.



In summing up the duo’s findings for the New York Times, John Noble Wilford wrote: “Endurance running, unique to humans among primates and uncommon in all mammals other than dogs, horses and hyenas, apparently evolved at least two million years ago and probably let human ancestors hunt and scavenge over great distances. That was probably decisive in the pursuit of high-protein food for development of large brains.”

While I was pleased thus to have confirmed my own notion that the ass figured large in human development, I was disquieted by its connection with running after food or anything else, except perhaps other asses. My friend Larry McCray, who had sent me Wilford’s report, commented, “I note in passing that both sexes have developed the runner’s backside, so I guess it wasn’t deeply true that the men always hunted and the women always gathered.” I found other holes in the story.

As I have long used my own gluteus maximus to connect the otherwise lonely armrests of my favorite chair, and to act as a counterbalance when I might otherwise be falling down drunk, the authors of this Nature study did not convince me that the ability to run long distances is crucial to the survival of the species, or ever was. If anything, their article made me wonder why our early ancestors were (a) so hungry that they would consider running long distances after food yet (b) so unimpaired by starvation that they could muster the energy to race across the veldt and into adjoining counties. Running just a little bit–I could see that as a useful evolutionary accretion. The laws of natural selection would tend to favor the effective hunters (and maybe even mobile female gatherers), who could sprint after game or away from those who would make game of them. This Darwinian trend would lead and breed to ever more muscular if not more ample glutes; the latter awaited the invention of television and fast food.

Scientists will tend to assign human progress to evidence of increasing strength, power, speed, and problem-solving skills, such as the making of tools. Artists will see the ascent of man in his rise up the great chain of being, from the bogs of the lowliest invertebrates to the spiritual realm of the angels. I believe the posterior is anterior to progress of both kinds–whether it is the bounteously insured booty of J. Lo or the bag of pudding hanging from yours truly. Not only does the gluteal region propel fight or flight or pursuit, as the Nature study suggests, it is also the seat of wisdom, weighing against the impulse to rush off and do something, anything, to scratch an itch.



Whether you call it an ass or an arse, a butt or a bottom, the troika of gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus forms the muscles upon which we sit as we await inspiration or contemplate action, and many things are better engaged in the contemplation, from homicide to exercise. By the grace of the three glutes we may have been born to run, but it is by enabling us to sit comfortably that these magical muscles have aided Newton, Einstein, and Alistair Cooke in the formulation of their greatest ideas. If these brainy men and others like them had sat less and run more, they might have captured a scampering bunny or two but the rest of us would have descended into a race of intellectual girlymen.

Which is where we’re headed, anyway. The liberal arts are suspected of undermining Americans’ drive to a service economy. Book lovers are regarded as sentimental castrati. Deconstructionists and semioticians create a mock aestheticism around hip-hop music and slasher films, and the fans roll in and snuffle the nonsense as if they were cats and it catnip. Once upon a time the unexamined life was deemed not worth living; now it is worth forensic examination.

The focus of American men’s lust has lately been reported to have shifted from breasts to bottoms, bringing our sexual politics, if not our foreign policy, into alignment with the rest of the world. Plastic surgeons are said to be doing more butt reshaping than either breast enhancements or facial reconstructions, excepting possibly eyelifts. Unwilling to accept the river of life that makes all of us more similar than not, we regard life as an extended masquerade ball in which we may appear younger than we are, thinner than our heredity would demand, more appealing in the bedroom. In our pharmatopia no shortcoming, real or imagined, must be endured. Endorphins, pheromones, ecstatic transport–all are but a mouse-click away.

That oxymoronic term “Reality TV” has moved from sleepover to makeover, with reconstruction of homes, physiques, family relationships. The do-over craze has extended to our surroundings, our bodies, our body politic. A swirl of action, like Sally Rand’s fan-dance way back when, convinces observers that they have seen something they haven’t.

I grant that some things are less easily accomplished on one’s butt than with it: war, procreation, windsurfing (did I miss anything?), yet the sedentary pursuit of such active sports is frequently less hazardous to all who might otherwise be involved or affected. The Tao has a useful construct for armchair adventurism: wei wu wei–literally “do/don’t do,” but better understood as purposeful inaction, which contrasts nicely with the world’s tendency to purposeless action. When we call someone an ass, it is seldom because they failed to get off theirs.

In our heedless rush to renovation–Enlarge your debt! Reduce your penis! (or was it the other way?)–who suggests getting on a spiritual StairMaster? Who says, chisel your knowledge as you would your abs? Who points out that interior decoration endures while exterior changes imply a mannequin within?

We were born not merely to run, but also to fly. Benjamin Franklin’s epitaph, the one he wrote in his youth, highlights the one true makeover, against which all others wither:

The Body of
Benjamin Franklin,
Like the Cover of an old Book,
Its Contents torn out,
And stript of its Lettering & Gilding,
Lies here, Food for Worms.-
Yet the Work itself shall not be lost,
For it will, as he believed, appear once more,
In a new
And more beautiful Edition,
Corrected and amended
BY: The Author.

No workout or makeover is required; ladies and gentlemen, be seated.

From: “Play’s the Thing,” Woodstock Times, December 2, 2004

Light Saber or SABR Light?

It has not been hard to let Star Wars mania pass me by … until now. Friend Ken Mars posted this on Facebook and I pay homage.

Light saber or SABR light


Merry Winter Solstice

Not knowing whether to wish readers of Our Game a Happy Hanukkah, a Merry Christmas, or a Joyous Kwanzaa, I halve the difference with the title of this post. Herewith, an array of baseball greetings of the season, for all baseball fans. Because a picture is worth a thousand words, I will be both copious and brief. For some of the Babe Ruth Christmas cards below, my thanks to Bruce Menard, whom I encourage you to visit on Twitter: @BSmile.

1931 Babe Ruth Xmas Card

1931 Babe Ruth Xmas Card

Merry Christmas from Mickey Mantle

Merry Christmas from Mickey Mantle

Greetings from the Eckford Base Ball Club of Brooklyn, founded 1855

Greetings from the Eckford Base Ball Club of Brooklyn, founded 1855

Babe Ruth's Last Christmas

Babe Ruth’s Last Christmas


Kwanzaa Baseball

Kwanzaa Baseball

Hanukkah Baseball

Hanukkah Baseball


Merry Winter Solstice

Merry Winter Solstice, 2000

Bee’s Knees and Cat’s Whiskers

Harrer, Seven Years in TibetJust the other day, a writer for Men’s Health requested an interview with me about the origin and evolution of the jock strap, supporter, and cup–which prompted my recall of the venerable Jacques Strop, a character in Robert Macaire, a once-famous play of the 1830s. I had little else to offer the interviewer, but this essay, penned for The Woodstock Times a decade ago, leapt to mind. I think it’s still pretty good (probably I should say swell); maybe you will too.

Miss Doherty’s assignment to her English section of sophomores at Richmond Hill High School was to write a single-page essay on “My Favorite Books.” My response was to award the palm to Heinrich Harrer’s Seven Years in Tibet, the book I had most recently read; mild approbation to Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles and mysteries in general; and short shrift to the entire genre of military books, which I said I just “couldn’t stand.” Miss Doherty indulged my opinions and kindly graded the essay at 90, but noted in the margin that my chatty remark that had meant to tar-brush everyone from Martial to Churchill was “colloq” [colloquial] and thus deficient. By way of explanation after returning the paper to me, she added that good writing was “elevated speech.”

For decades I had displayed that naïve and frankly not so hot (“colloq”) essay in a frame on the wall of my study, to chasten me and to hearten others who might pause to read it. Today it resides in a box in storage, and I have come to like Miss Doherty less well than I did when I was her pupil in 1960. Only in recent years have I realized the lasting impact of her offhand observation that good writing is somehow more formal, more structured, more dignified than good talk. I became an English major in college and wrote stiff and stuffy if well received papers. I became a professional writer of sports-history books, differing from my peers in that my prose seemed generally professorial and chilly where theirs was often imprecise yet energetic.

Well, folks, Miss Doherty was wrong – it turns out that the best writing is that closest to the best talk, if not the same damn thing. I could have learned this from Mark Twain, from Joseph Mitchell, from H.L. Mencken – from Walt Whitman, above all! – and countless others who often turned fancy phrases but never abandoned their unique voices. But for the longest time I somehow thought that it was a delicious subtlety for an author to throw his voice across the room like a ventriloquist. When I would toss a colloquial or slang term into an archly constructed sentence my purpose was to jar, to amuse, and then to return, invigorated, to an expository manner. I knew I was injecting pop into otherwise staid sentences but I didn’t wonder why it was that I could rely upon that outcome, or what particular powers these “low-brow” words had.My Ears Are Bent, MItchell

Lately I have begun to come around, and it is my prolific email habit that I have to thank. Writing speedily and often thoughtlessly, I have neatly bypassed Miss Doherty’s censors (and more importantly my own) and defaulted to my own voice, my own ear, and my own love of words once all the rage but now quaint—swell (first appearance in print 1897), crummy (1859), nifty (1868), jerk (1935), groovy (1941). I had always been archaeologically inclined, ever since boyhood, wondering how things began, how they migrated from there to here, why they flourished or why they disappeared. Whether my curiosity attached to rock ‘n’ roll and advanced backwards to the blues and jazz and West African music, or to baseball and its bat-and-ball variants going back to the Egypt of the pharaohs, or to the special argot of all sport with its capacity to originate terms that come into common parlance or to purloin terms from other fields and redefine them, my path was always the same: learn the story behind the thing at hand and use that as a lens with which to see and understand both the past and the present.

The power of patois is that it comes from the bottom up, without social sanction, often from special-interest subcultures (surfers, techies, druggies) or ethnic or sexual minorities, and always with a slanting, often humorous, stance toward majority culture. Most of it vanishes rapidly – notably in our day once the mass-media gurus get their hands on it (“Here come da Judge!”) – indeed, so rapidly that even a generation later we are left to wonder what the catch-phrase meant in the first place. The derivation of off-color terminology was particularly amusing to trace when I was a schoolboy, and my enduring interest in such sleuthing is one of the many ways in which I have proudly arrested my development. (When I wrote a column called “The Magic Glute” a few weeks back I had a long and, to me at least, fascinating explanation for how one’s bottom came to be termed an ass; however, I couldn’t wedge it into that story any more than I can into this.)

Other men may lust after Boxters, iPods, and trophy wives; I have my microfilm reader, my Harry Potter magnifying glass, and my compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. For me adventure is at all times but a step away. Although I am a nerd (first appearance in print 1957; probable origin a character in a Dr. Seuss book of seven years earlier, If I Ran the Zoo), I am not singular in such pursuits. I have a good many friends who would proudly describe themselves as geeks (1875!). One, Skip McAfee of Virginia, engaged in a spirited debate over the meaning of the baseball phrase “Out of Left Field,” answering a query by Professor Bill Rubinstein of Australia by refuting certain explanations offered by amateur philologist and professional word maven (“colloq”) William Safire of the New York Times. Another, George A. Thompson, contributed to a thread I had started on a bulletin board for aficionados of nineteenth century baseball about the nautical origins of such baseball terms as “skipper” (captain, later manager, of a nine), “on deck” (next batter), “in the hold” (next batter after that), “around the horn” (a double play initiated by the third baseman, then on to the second baseman, and finally the first baseman, but earlier derived from ships sailing around Cape Horn to Western ports, and earlier still, from the Dutch city of Hoorn), and “skyscraper” (an early baseball term for a pop fly, but even earlier, in 1794, a triangular topsail also called a moon-raker).

nerdPriscilla Astifan of Rochester wrote to me about these matters nautical, saying, “it’s fascinating the way old references prevail even when the associations that initiated them are long gone,” a fine observation to which I replied: “I love these archaisms or vestiges, too. It’s downright hilarious that sportswriters today will write ‘Martinez was knocked out of the box’ or ‘Boston notched three runs in its half of the inning.’ Not a mother’s son of them seems aware that we haven’t had a pitcher’s box since 1892 and we haven’t counted runs by scoring notches into a stick since the 1840s.”

Peter Morris convinced me that his explanation for the derivation of the baseball word “fan” was correct: that the term was originally used in derision, as an insiders’ (players, managers, owners) dismissal of outsider wannabes (first appearance in print rather recent, 1988). As I wrote to him, “The idea of ceaseless tongue-flapping being a metaphorical fan seems right, and the ‘controversy’ of ‘fanatic’ vs. ‘fancy’ [as the source of ‘fan’] seems contrived and incongruent with the class character of the baseball set…. Imagine looking upon a crowd of several thousand people all fanning themselves – might you not refer to the congregants themselves as fans, just as the original operators of typewriters were themselves named for their instruments? (Only later were they called typists.) Or maybe the name comes from the incessant chatter and debate by which true baseball devotees are known.”

In a similar example of synecdoche, in which the name of the part is transferred to the whole, today a visibly athletic male (or oddly and increasingly, and no longer disparagingly, a female) is termed a “jock.” This term derives not from a horse jockey but from the jock strap worn to support the male genitalia in active sport. Okay – but where does “jock strap” come from? Not from the racetrack, I suggest, but from Jacques Strop, a supporting character in Robert Macaire, an obscure 1830s play by Benjamin Antier. Ya heard it here first.

Ditto for the true origin of Murderers’ Row, a term used to describe the middle of the batting order of the 1927 New York Yankees. While the usual etymology for this term is plausible – that it derives from a row of cells in New York’s Tombs prison reserved for the most dastardly of criminals – Murderers’ Row was an actual alley in Manhattan long before the Civil War, starting where Watts Street ended at Sullivan Street, midway along the block between Grand and Broome Streets. Checking an 1827 listing of street names, I found that such location matched a street name: Otter’s Alley, which ran from Thompson to Sullivan Streets between Broome and Grand Streets.

Other sports terms besides those in baseball hold wonderful trace memories of their early days. The football field is called a gridiron because a hundred years ago it was marked not only by horizontal lines representing each five-yard distance, but also vertical lines five yards apart. And to this day basketball players are sometimes called, notably by headline writers short of character space, “cagers.” Why? Because the game was originally played within a metal cage designed to keep the ball out of the stands and the fans in them. Given the [then; 2004] recent fracas in Detroit, a cage seems an idea whose time has come back.

Canton-Massillon 1906 with gridiron

Canton-Massillon 1906 with gridiron

There are peculiar antique terms in all of our sports that many will struggle to explain. Mention “mashie niblick” and you’ll always get a perplexed laugh. But in the days when few golfers carried what we could call a full complement of clubs, the number of irons was reduced. A mashie equated to a five iron and a niblick to a nine iron (the club whose face slanted more than any club except a wedge). Those not carrying both clubs might opt for a mashie niblick, which would equate to a seven iron.

I could go on, but space constraints begin to pinch. John Ayto, editor of The Oxford Dictionary of Slang, writes in the preface to that volume: “From the earliest exposes of underworld cant from writers such as John Awdelay and Thomas Harman in the sixteenth century, through Francis Grose’s pioneering Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785), J. S. Farmer and W. E. Henley’s seven-volume Slang and Its Analogues (1890-1904), and Eric Partridge’s influential Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (1936), to Jonathan Lighter’s Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1994 –  ), the development of colloquial English vocabulary has been voluminously and enthusiastically documented.”

SIDEBAR: A Selection from The Oxford Dictionary of Slang

Here, not voluminously but certainly enthusiastically, are some words and phrases I particularly like, along with the often surprising date of their first appearance in print using their current meanings. Almost always the first appearance of a slang word in print does not mark the beginning of its usage, and with almost equal certainty, the first appearance is substantially earlier than one might have imagined.

Bees Knees (1923)

Cats Pajamas, Meow, Whiskers (1921-23)

23 Skidoo (1926, origin unknown)

86 (1936; the folks at Chumley’s Restaurant at 86 Bedford Street in NYC will tell you different)

Makin’ Whoopee (1928)

Rave or Rave-Up (1960)

Cool (1933)

Chill Out (1980)

The Blues (1741—derives from blue devils)

Neat (1934)

Nifty (1868)

Spiffy (1853)

Natty (1785)

Snappy (1881)

Hip (1951)

Hep (1957; surely the editors have this pegged too late)

Bodacious (1843)

Together (1968)

Happening (1977)

Snazzy (1932)

Sharp (1940)

Ducky (1897)

Unreal (1965)

Hot (sexual desire, 1500; erotic, 1892; skillful, 1914; fashionable, 1908)

Groovy (1941)

Fab (1957)

Gear (1951)

Swinging (1958 as “trendy”)

In (1960)

Trendy (1962)

Awesome (1975)

Def (1979)

Killer (1979)

Rad (1982)

Radical (1971)

Hipster (1941)

Hippie (1953)

Cat (1920)

Chick (1899)

Fox (1961, back formation from foxy of 1895)

Dude  (1883, but in sense of “fancy dan”)

Lousy (1596; yes)

Crummy (1859; from crumb as body louse)

Schlock (1915)

N.B.G. (no bloody good, 1903; today often seen as N.F.G.)

Turkey (as stinker, 1927)

Icky (1939)

Gross (1958)

Grody (1965; from grotesque)

Jerk (1935)

Geek (1875)

Wimp (1920)

Nerd (1957)

Bug (1841)

Stoked (1963, surfing term)

Kook (1951, surfing derivation

Outasight (1893)

Bad (as good) 1897

Swell (1897)

Wicked (as good) 1920

Far Out (1954)

Wannabe (1988)

Abner Cartwright

Cooperstown, NY

Cooperstown, NY

Abner Cartwright, Alexander Doubleday . . . these composite names stand for an exceedingly odd couple whose identities have been stolen, accomplishments merged, and stories intertwined for more than a century now. In truth, Abner Doubleday and Alexander Cartwright were entirely separate, historically significant individuals who were born and died one year apart but never met each other in life. What both men share is that their hard-won fame was hijacked after their deaths by unprincipled advocates with ulterior motives, and as a result each was credited with something he did not do—that is, invent baseball.

There is no need to recite here the full story, amply reported elsewhere, of how Abner Doubleday was anointed as the Father of Baseball by the Mills Commission at the end of 1907, fourteen years after he left this life having had little to say about the game to anyone, not even his old friend Mills. What left Abraham G. Mills holding his nose while affirming Doubleday’s paternity was the lately produced recollection of Abner Graves, offered into evidence by Albert Goodwill Spalding, that in 1839 (when Graves was five years old) he had witnessed Doubleday sketch out a new game that he called baseball.

Abner Doubleday.

“Until my perusal of this testimony,” Mills wrote in the December 30, 1907 report of his Commission, whose mandate was set to run out at year’s end, “my own belief had been that our ‘National Game of Base Ball’ originated with the Knickerbocker club, organized in New York in 1845, and which club published certain elementary rules in that year; but, in the interesting and pertinent testimony for which we are indebted to Mr. A. G. Spalding, appears a circumstantial statement by a reputable gentleman, according to which the first known diagram of the diamond, indicating positions for the players, was drawn by Abner Doubleday in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1839.”[1]

Mills’s personal knowledge that the Knickerbocker club had been an innovative force in baseball made him wary of the Spalding/Graves claim. Toward the end of his report he wrote:

“I am also much interested in the statement made by Mr. Curry, [first president] of the pioneer Knickerbocker club, and confirmed by Mr. Tassie, of the famous old Atlantic club of Brooklyn, that a diagram, showing the ball field laid out substantially as it is to-day, was brought to the field one afternoon by a Mr. Wadsworth. Mr. Curry says “the plan caused a great deal of talk, but, finally, we agreed to try it.

“It is possible that a connection more or less direct can be traced between the diagram drawn by Doubleday in 1839 and that presented to the Knickerbocker club by Wadsworth in 1845, or thereabouts, and I wrote several days ago for certain data bearing on this point, but as it has not yet come to hand I have decided to delay no longer sending in the kind of paper your letter calls for, promising to furnish you the indicated data when I obtain it, whatever it may be.”[2]

Duncan CurryThe requested data about the mysterious Mr. Wadsworth never emerged. Will Rankin, a baseball writer whose 1877 interview with Curry had been the source of Mills’s mention of Wadsworth reversed course in 1905 and said that Curry had meant to credit Cartwright rather than Wadsworth. A weary Mills ruled on baseball’s paternity suit in a somewhat contingent fashion by stating that “the first scheme for playing it, according to the best evidence obtainable to date, was devised by Abner Doubleday at Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1839” (emphasis added). [3]

One week after issuing the report, Mills wrote to the baseball writer whose memory had improved twenty-eight years after the fact:

“. . . you quote Mr. Curry as stating that some one had presented a plan showing a ball field,’ etc., and, in the second letter, Mr. Tassie told you that he remembered the incident, and that he ‘thought it was a Mr. Wadsworth who held an important position in the Custom House,’ etc. Taking this as a clue I wrote sometime ago to the Collector of Customs, asking him to have the records searched for the years ’40 to ’45, for the purpose of ascertaining from what part of the State the Mr. Wadsworth, in question, came.[4]

Mills was wondering whether an upstate Wadsworth, perhaps one of the Geneseo clan, might somehow have brought the Doubleday diagram to New York.

Not even ten years later, on February 2, 1916, an unnamed writer in the New York Times hilariously mashed up Mills’s equivocal support for Doubleday with his suspicions about baseball’s creation myth:

“Baseball before the days of the National League dates seventy-seven years back to 1839, when Abner Doubleday, at an academy at Cooperstown, N.Y., invented a game of ball on which the present game is based. Doubleday afterwards went to West Point and later became a Major General in the United States Army.

“The game as played at the school in Cooperstown consisted of hitting the ball and running to one base. First it was called ‘One Old Cat,’ then with two bases ‘Two Old Cat,’ and finally with three bases ‘Three Old Cat.’

“Another boy at the Cooperstown school, Alexander J. Cartwright, one day evolved a rough sketch of a diamond and the boys tried it with great success. From that day to this the general plan of the diamond has changed only in a few details.

“It was at Mr. Cartwright’s suggestion in 1845 that the first baseball club was formed.”

Alex Cartwright ca. 1850.

Alex Cartwright ca. 1850.

Is it any wonder that delegates for Doubleday and Cartwright went on to contend so fiercely for primacy? The bickering and machinations led, on the strength of the claim for Doubleday, to the founding of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown while the Cartwright faction, led by his indefatigable grandson Bruce, as formidable a propagandist as Spalding had been, won for their champion a plaque in the Hall that was denied to Doubleday.

General Doubleday went to his grave with an undeniable record of military accomplishment, especially in the Civil War; he was also known for his spiritualist beliefs. His only documented intersection with baseball came in 1871. While in command of the 24th U.S. Infantry’s “Colored Regiment,” at Fort McKavett, Texas, he addressed a request on June 17 to General E. D. Townsend, Adjutant General, U.S. Army, Washington DC:

“I have the honor to apply for permission to purchase for the Regimental Library a few portraits of distinguished generals, Battle pictures, and some of Rogers groups of Statuary particularly those relative to the actions of the Colored population of the south. This being a colored regiment ornaments of this kind seem very appropriate. I would also like to purchase baseball implements for the amusement of the men and a Magic Lantern for the same purpose. The fund is ample and I think these expenditures would add to the happiness of the men.”[5]

Cartwright, on the other hand, was a real baseball personage. He was present at the creation of the Knickerbocker Club and possesses genuine claims to organizational and playing prowess, though the lengths to which his supporters have gone to make him the Isaac Newton of baseball have rendered his myth more difficult to deconstruct than Doubleday’s. We may look to the mid-nineteenth century’s obsession with science, system, business, and organization to answer the question of who was thought, back then, to have created the game, and why. The Knickerbockers’ claim to being the “pioneer organization” was asserted not because they were the first to play the game of baseball (children had been doing that for a century), nor because they were the first club organized to encourage men to play what had been a boys’ game.

Today we know that baseball was invented by no one man in a feat of spontaneous inspiration. We know that the New York, Gotham, Washington, Eagle, Magnolia, and Olympic ball clubs all preceded the Knickerbocker Club. We know that baseball was played under that name by two teams of grown men in New York City in 1823, by which time the game had become so pervasive that playing it within eighty yards of the town meeting house of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, had been banned in 1791. We know that baseball was the name for the game as it was played in England before anyone had heard of rounders.

William Rufus Wheaton

William Rufus Wheaton

In short, recent scholarship has revealed the prior history of early baseball to be a lie agreed upon, with first Doubleday and then Cartwright and his playmates as a contrived starting point. The Knickerbockers were proclaimed first because they had a formal set of rules, regular days of play, a firm roster of members, and sundry other bourgeois, upstanding values. And Alex Cartwright—rather than Duncan F. Curry, or Louis F. Wadsworth, or D. L. Adams, or William R. Wheaton—became the standard bearer for the Knickerbockers because he had a more dedicated press corps in the person of his grandson.

To separate the man from the myth, one must accept at face value none of the claims made for him by those scholars who, in debunking Doubleday, have elevated Cartwright beyond the demonstrable record of his accomplishment. For example, Cartwright assuredly did not do any of the three central things credited to him on his plaque in the Baseball Hall of Fame: “Set bases 90 feet apart. Established 9 innings as a game and 9 players as a team.” The plaque goes on to add: “Carried baseball to Pacific Coast and Hawaii in pioneer days.” I will not derail the argument of this essay by attempting to debunk that hoary claim, but you may sense a raised eyebrow.

Alexander Joy Cartwright was twenty-nine when he left New York for the Gold Rush and his eventual home in Hawaii, where he lived for his remaining forty-three years. His mercantile, cultural, and political involvements are significant, and the magnitude of the man cannot be understood if one looks only to his baseball years; the same may be said for Doubleday. It is true of each that by diminishing the legend, one may enlarge the man.


1. Abraham Mills, “Final Decision of the Special Baseball Commission,” December 30, 1907, in Spalding Official Base Ball Guide, 1908, ed. Henry Chadwick (New York: American Sports Publishing), page 47.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Letter from Abraham Mills to Will Rankin, January 6, 1908, in Mills Correspondence, National Baseball Hall of Fame, Giamatti Library.
5. Regimental Book of Letters Sent, addressed to Brigadier General E.D. Townsend, Adjutant General, U.S. Army, Washington, D.C.

Surprise Postseason Heroes

bpp header[I delivered this brief talk in my hometown of Catskill, at Beattie-Powers Place, on Saturday.] There are probably a good many Mets fans among you, so forgive me for bringing up a painful memory: the 2015 World Series, which the Kansas City Royals captured in five games. If only baseball were a game of eight innings rather than nine, it is the Mets who would have won in five; three times they took a lead into the ninth and coughed it up. Bad luck, but as some wit once said, it is unlucky to be behind at the end of the game.

The MVP of the World Series was Royals’ catcher Salvador Perez, who had some key hits but drove in only two runs. Daniel Murphy of the Mets, who had ridden into the World Series in a Cinderella glass carriage after seven home runs in the first two rounds, rode back in a pumpkin after collecting only three singles in the World Series.

I am telling what you already know, either from press reports or by having witnessed it with your own eyes. My point is simply this: that over the many months of the regular season we keep track of the WHO and the WHAT of baseball accomplishment, but the postseason adds, sometimes poignantly, the dimension of WHEN, which creates ephemeral demigods—men who may have exhibited no similar skill beforehand, and typically revert to form thereafter.

Curt Welch

Curt Welch

The list of relative nonentities who became fleeting heroes is long, beginning with outfielder Curt Welch of the 1886 St. Louis Browns. In the World Series of that year—yes, there had been one in the early years, before the advent of the American League—the prize pot of $15,000 went entirely to the winning club, and Browns’ owner Chris von Der Ahe renounced his personal share if his club would win. With the Browns having won three of the first five contests, Game 6 was settled in the tenth inning by what instantly came to be known as “Welch’s $15,000 slide,” as the winning run scored by Browns’ outfielder Curt Welch assured his teammates that much in shared winnings.

Chances are that you never heard of Welch, or of George Rohe, the substitute infielder on the “Hitless Wonder” Chicago White Sox of 1906. Playing third base only because a regular was unable to take the position, Rohe hit two game-winning triples, and added three more hits in the clincher. The Sox defeated the powerhouse Cubs—whose regular season record was 116 wins against only 36 losses—in what remains the greatest World Series upset of all time.

I could go on to list other unlikely heroes, but that would be a bit dull. A partial roll call might include New York second-tier players Bucky Dent, Dusty Rhodes, Billy Martin, Don Larsen, and Joe Page, as well as other forgettable figures such as Gene Tenace, Larry Sherry, and David Freese. An exploit at the end of a final game—think Bill Mazeroski’s homer in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, or, to a lesser extent, Joe Carter’s in Game Six, 1993—will cement a reputation and even pave the way to Cooperstown.

In a postseason series the significance of every hit, run, and error is magnified so as to create the illusion of clutch performance. Because it happened when it happened, it must be clutch, right? Reggie Jackson’s three home runs off the first pitch from three different pitchers in the deciding Game Six of the 1977 World Series—well, it can’t get any clutchier than that, can it?

Several sabermetricians, myself among them, believe that if clutch ability were anything more than an optical illusion—if it attached to an individual as his attribute—then it would be replicable, season to season, as other abilities are. Over his career, a home run hitter will tend to hit home runs, a strikeout pitcher will tend to strike batters out, a premier shortstop will tend to get to more balls than his rivals at the position. But it turns out that a strong clutch performer in one season may be among the league’s worst in the following campaign.

Player Win Averages_Mills BrothersIn 1969 and 1970, the Mills brothers (the nonsinging variety, in this case Eldon and Harlan), who were partners in a self-started enterprise called Computer Research in Sports, tracked two entire major-league seasons on a play-by-play basis. Then they applied to that record the probabilities of winning which derived from each possible outcome of a plate appearance, as determined by a computer simulation incorporating nearly 8,000 possibilities.

What, for example, was the visiting team’s chance of winning the game before the first pitch was thrown? Fifty percent, if we are pitting two theoretical teams of equal or unknown ability on a neutral site. If that first man fails to get on base, the chances of the visiting team winning are reduced to 49.8 percent; should he hit a double, the visiting team’s chance of victory is raised to 55.9 percent, as determined by the probabilistic simulation. Every possible situation—combining half inning, score, men on base, and men out—was tested by the simulator to arrive at “Win Points.”

The Millses’ purpose was to determine the clutch value of, say, hitting a homer with two men on and one man out in the bottom of the ninth, with the team trailing by two runs, the situation that Bobby Thomson faced in the climactic National League game of 1951. (It gained for him 1,472 Win Points; had it come with no one on in the eighth inning of a game in which his team led 4-0, the homer would have been worth only 12 Win Points.)

What the Mills brothers were attempting to do was to evaluate not only the what of a performance, which traditional statistics indicate, but the when, or clutch factor, which no statistic to that time could provide. If this project, detailed in a small book issued in 1970 called Player Win Averages, sounds familiar, it is because at last it has been adopted by modern-day statisticians, in all sports. Win probability mid-game is a feature, for example, of NFL broadcast analysis.

Good hitters are good hitters and weak hitters are weak hitters regardless of the game situation. Who would you wish to appear at the plate in a clutch situation—your cleanup batter or your number 8 hitter?

My friend Dick Cramer wrote, in a landmark article in 1977: “But there is no reason why a weak hitter shouldn’t be fortunate enough to get a series of fat pitches or good swings in crucial situations. Given enough time, this might even happen over some player’s whole career. After all, what was really meant when someone was called a ‘clutch hitter’? Was he really a batter who didn’t fold under pressure—or was he a lazy batter who bothered to try his hardest only when the game was on the line?”

Each year, postseason heroes and goats abound—Daniel Murphy went from hero to goat in an instant, it seemed—but both are accidents of time and place rather than indications of character and ability.


Diamond Visions: Baseball’s Greatest Illustration Art, Part 5

Artist: John Falter

Artist: John Falter

Boy, now that I’m at the end of the series I realize that I like these last five as much as any of the others ranked higher. But Clickbait 101 has no lesson plan for unranked groupings. I have written full articles related to the five images below, excepting only Gary Cieradkowski’s Infinite Card Set, amazing for its scholarship as well as its art. But steeling myself to the task, let me talk a little about the steel engraving below of the Magnolia Ball Club’s playground at the Elysian Fields of Hoboken. This unassuming little ticket to an 1844 ball, of which only one example has survived–it is in a private collection–is the first visual depiction of grown men playing baseball. Because it was clearly produced in numbers, and for sale, I would call it the first baseball card, a further distinction if less impressive than that previously mentioned. And a further distinction is that the image, which came up at auction with a misleading description, opened the door onto a previously unknown baseball club of New York n’er-do-wells–one that preceded the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club.

21. Fashion Race Course on cover of New York Clipper, July 24, 1858.

21. Fashion Race Course, New York Clipper, July 24, 1858.

The “Great Base Ball Match” depicted on the cover of the New York Clipper of July 24, 1858 had been played four days earlier, pitting the best of New York against the best of Brooklyn. The firsts that can be pinned to this event are: first all-star game; first game played in an enclosed park (the Fashion Race Course Grounds, spitting distance from today’s Citi Field); and first paid admission. To me this is not only a historic image but a beautiful one. For more on this signal game, see:

22. Ticket to First Annual Ball of the Magnolia Ball Club, 1844

23. Ticket to First Annual Ball of the Magnolia Ball Club, 1844

What are we seeing in this tiny image, engraved by William Fairthorne of New York? In the foreground, the North River, as the Hudson was called near New York City; the Colonnade Hotel at the Elysian Fields of Hoboken; a waiter bringing refreshments to the ball players; and a game of game of ball, with the bases artisticall terndered as posts, as in the old game of baseball that had been played in this country since the mid-18th century. As I wrote in the piece linked below, “The baseball scene on the card reveals three bases with stakes, eight men in the field, a pitcher with an underarm delivery, possibly base-stealing, and a top-hatted waiter bearing a tray of refreshments from the Colonnade. Some of the members of the ‘in’ side are arrayed behind a long table; others are seated upon it. The pitcher delivers the ball. A runner heads from first to second base. This is, from all appearances, the original Knickerbocker game, and that of the New York Base Ball Club, and that of the Gothams of the 1830s (shortstop was a position not manned until 1849–1850).” For more on this ball club and the circumstances surrounding its rediscovery, see:

22. Gary Cieradkowski, Infinite Card Set

22. Gary Cieradkowski, Infinite Card Set

Gary Cierdakowski recently published a stunningly executed book called The League of Outsider Baseball: An Illustrated History of Baseball’s Forgotten Heroes. I blurbed it thus: “Gary Cieradkowski is to me the most interesting artist working in baseball today. His bold graphic style recalls America’s poster kings of yore–Edward Penfield, J.C. Leyendecker, Fred G. Cooper–and his love of the game breathes new life into heroes long gone.” Here are links to that book and to his blog:

24. Red Stocking Cigar Poster, 1874

24. Red Stocking Cigar Poster, 1874

Apart from its drop-dead-gorgeous portrait of Boston shortstop George Wright, the hero of the age, this 1874 poster has the distinction of being the first instance of an American athlete endorsement of a product or service. Wright was about to embark on a tour of England with his fellow Red Stockings and the Philadelphia Athletics. And 1874 was also the year when the fledgling firm of Nichols & Macdonald, Boston cigar makers, secured the rights to his photographic image for a 14– by 10–inch advertising poster. Produced for them by the venerable lithographer and job printer J.H. Bufford’s Sons of 490 Washington Street, it is a graphic and historic landmark. Wright’s image within the poster dates to 1871 or ’72, when Warren’s Photographic Studios of Boston issued it as a cabinet card. The address listed for Bufford in the city directory for 1875 is 666 Washington, so we may deduce the date of the poster as no later than 1874. The young cigar makers are not listed before 1874, so there we have the date of issuance with certainty. For (a great deal) more, see:

25. New-York Illustrated News, Atlantic-Excelsior match game, August 4, 1860,

25. New-York Illustrated News, Atlantic-Excelsior match game, August 4, 1860.

SABR pal Bob Tholkes shared this with me some time ago: “An August 1, 1860 ad by a book seller in the Buffalo Daily Courier of August 1, 1860 mentioned that pictures of the recent match between the Atlantic and Excelsior (played on July 19) appeared in the current edition of Demorest’s New-York Illustrated News [August 4].” Examining an enlargement of the panoramic scene, it struck me that the emblem on the pitcher’s bib front looked to be single letter, not the ABBC of the Atlantic Club. He must be an Excelsior and, as the box score would corroborate, he must be Creighton. This was no generic, bucolic scene–as all baseball-game views had been to this time–but an illustration of a specific contest. As the caption put it: “Grand Base Ball Match forthe Championship, Between the Excelsior and Atlantic Clubs,of Brooklyn, at the Excelsior Grounds, South Brooklyn, on Thursday, July 19.–from a Sketch Made by Our Own Artist.”  That artist’s name, barely legible, appears to be J.H. Gooter, but that is a name not identifiable today.


Diamond Visions: Baseball’s Greatest Illustration Art, Part 4

Base Ball Collar, 1867

Base Ball Collar, 1867

Welcome to Part Four of this five-part series. The best is not behind you but arguably ahead: it may easily be held that images 16-20 below are the equal of, if not superior to, those that preceded it in my admittedly quirky rankings. (I doubt, for example, that anyone but yours truly would have awarded James Daugherty’s newspaper cartoon from 1914, below, a place in the pantheon.) Illustration art will tend to have more graphic pop than fine art, and it will draw the eye to a central object while treating the background detail with scant attention. But I particularly like the “small stuff,” and this taste may go some way toward explaining why I have selected the twenty-five exemplars depicted in this series. In Image No. 16, for example, the intent of the artist and the publisher–Ebenezer Butterick, the inventor of graded sewing patterns–is to focus on the fashions; Butterick issued a fashion plate to accompany each “quarterly report” of patterns. But look at the background–a ball game in progress at what is clearly Brooklyn’s Union Grounds, with its distinctive pagoda, erected even before the park’s proprietor, William Cammeyer, thought of playing baseball here. The Union Grounds began life as a skating rink, and this was a changing room (for more on this park, see

16. New York Fashions for March 1870, E. Butterick & Co.

16. New York Fashions for March 1870, E. Butterick & Co.

The clubs depicted are, left to right, Cincinnati Red Stockings, undefeated in 1869; Empire of New York; Atlantic of Brooklym; Star of Brooklyn; unknown; and Mutual of New York. The name of the lithographic publisher (“Hatch & Co., 218 Broadway, Herald Building, N. Y.”) appears in smaller lettering in the lower right corner. The name of the artist, John (“Jno.”) Schuller, appears in small script on the fence to the far right. Fewer than ten examples of this print are known to survive.

17. Futurist Picture of the Opening Game, James Daugherty, Detroit Free Press, April 12, 1914

17. Futurist Picture of the Opening Game (inset), James Daugherty, Detroit Free Press, April 12, 1914

Writing in 1949, James Daugherty (1887–1974) declared that modern art was nothing less than “liberating and expansive, rousing and freeing human consciousness from materialism to infinite possibilities of living, creating universal harmony, energy and renewal.” In 1913, his eyes were opened to a world of new possibilities by the landmark Armory Show and, as he later described it, Daugherty “went modern with a vengeance.” In his Futurist-inspired works, swirling and intersecting figures were abstracted and fragmented in the nonstop movement of baseball and dancing. The painting on which the newspaper cartoon above is based–“Three Base Hit,” in pen and ink and opaque watercolor on paper–resides in the collection of the Whitney Museum, which also purchased this newspaper print. See:

18. The National Pastime, Dick Perez

18. The National Pastime, Dick Perez

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. All that is missing from Dick Perez’s recreation of Opening Day in New York, April 29, 1886 is the rhyme’s silver sixpence in her shoe. Reconstructing the vista from a series of detective-camera snapshots taken from the stands on that day, Perez created a panoramic view of not only a ball game but the era itself. Later issued a limited-edition print, “The National Pastime” began life as the wraparound cover of SABR’s publication by that name, in Spring 1984. A portion of this image graces the book jacket for my own Baseball in the Garden of Eden.

19. Charles Dana Gibson. The First League Game of Base-Ball of the Season, Harper's Weekly, April 27, 1889

19. Charles Dana Gibson. The First League Game of Base-Ball of the Season, Harper’s Weekly, April 27, 1889

Charles Dana Gibson is today remembered as the originator of “The Gibson Girl,” the long-haired, athletic beauty featured in so many of his ironic social tableaux. But he was a baseball fan, too, who specialized in depicting the facial expressions that accompanied hope and despair in the stands. This lesser known work is my favorite, though. It appeared in Harper’s Weekly in monochrome, of course; the coloring is later.

20. Lucky Seventh, Ralph Henry Barbour; cover, Norman Rockwell, 1914

20. The Lucky Seventh, Ralph Henry Barbour; cover, Norman Rockwell, 1914

Norman Rockwell created so many now famous baseball paintings for The Saturday Evening Post that I could not choose among them. Instead, I have selected this first of his baseball works printed in color, published when he had just turned twenty. Some baseball drawings had appeared previously, in the May 1913 issue of Boys’ Life.

Illustrations 21-25 tomorrow!


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